The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







A zig·gu·rat (zĭg`ə-răt) is a temple tower of the ancient Mesopotamian valley and Persia, having the form of a terraced pyramid of successively receding storeys. One of the finest remaining is Choqa Zanbil in western Iran, which has miraculously survived despite a devastating 8 year war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s in which many archeological sites were destroyed. The oldest surviving ziggurat, however, is in Kashan Iran dating back to the 5th millenia BC. Ziggurat designs ranged from simple bases upon which a temple sat, to marvels of mathematics and construction which spanned several terraced stories and were topped with a temple fit for any God.

White Temple at Uruk (Sumer)
White Temple at Uruk (Sumer)

An example of a simpler ziggurat is the White Temple of Uruk, in ancient Sumer. The ziggurat itself is the base on which the White Temple is set. Its purpose is to get the temple closer to the heavens, and provide access from the ground to it via steps.

Reconstruction of Marduk Ziggurat, Babylon
Reconstruction of Marduk Ziggurat, Babylon

Example of an extensive and massive ziggurat is the Marduk ziggurat, or Etemenanki, of ancient Babylon. Unfortunately, not much of even the base is left of this massive structure, yet archeological findings and historical accounts put this tower at seven multicolored tiers, topped with a temple of exquisite proportions. The temple is thought to have been painted and maintained an indigo color, matching the tops of the tiers. It is known that there were three staircases leading to the temple, two of which (side flanked) were thought to have only ascended half the ziggurat's height.

Etemenanki, the name for the structure is Sumerian and means "The Foundation of Heaven and Earth." Most likely being built by Hammurabi, the ziggurat's core was found to have contained the remains of earlier ziggurats and structures. The final stage consisted of a 15 meter hardened brick encasement constructed by King Nebuchadnezzar.

Marduk Ziggurat, Babylon
Marduk Ziggurat, Babylon

Ziggurats were a form of temple common to the Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians of ancient Mesopotamia. These structures were called Etemenanki by the Sumerians, meaning "The Foundation of Heaven and Earth." The earliest examples of ziggurats date from the end of the third millennium BC and the latest date from the 6th century BC. Built in receding tiers upon a rectangular, oval, or square platform, the ziggurat was a pyramidal structure. Sun-baked bricks made up the core of the ziggurat with facings of fired bricks on the outside. The facings were often glazed in different colors and may have had cosmological significance. The number of tiers ranged from two to seven, with a shrine or temple at the summit. Access to the shrine was provided by a series of ramps on one side of the ziggurat or by a spiral ramp from base to summit. Notable examples of this structure include the ruins at Ur and Khorsabad in Mesopotamia.

The Mesopotamian ziggurats were not the place of public worship or ceremonies but instead were believed to be dwelling places for the gods. Through the ziggurat the gods could be close to mankind and each city had its own patron god or goddess. Only priests were permitted inside the ziggurat and it was their responsibility to care for the gods and attend to their needs. As a result the priests were very powerful members of Sumerian society.

It has also been suggested that the ziggurat was a symbolic representation of the primeval mound upon which the universe had supposedly been created. Moreover, the ziggurat may have been built as a bridge between heaven and earth. The temples of the Sumerians were believed to be a cosmic axis, a vertical bond between heaven and Earth, and the Earth and the underworld, and a horizontal bond between the lands. Built on seven levels the ziggurat represented seven heavens and planes of existence, the seven planets and the seven metals associated with them and their corresponding colors.

Overall, 32 ziggurats are currently known to be existing from and around Mesopotamia. 4 of them are in Iran, and the rest are mostly in Iraq. The most recent to be discovered was Sialk, in central Iran.

The ziggurat style of architecture continues to be used and copied today in many places of the world. Perhaps one example would be the University of Tennessee central library, in Knoxville, Tennessee. Another would be the ziggurat by the river, near downtown Sacramento, California, used as corporate office space.

The Biblical account of the Tower of Babel may be based on recollections of Mesopotamian ziggurats.

See also

Sialk ziggurat, Kashan, Iran Choqa Zanbil ziggurat, Susa, Iran

External links

Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04